Ash Wednesday - Let Go and Love God
Isaiah 58, Isaiah 62:1-5, Eph 4:1-6, 5:1-2, Psalm 51:1-17
In the letter I sent, I said that I would talk about fasting as preparation to become the bride of Christ, the church, but the sermon evolved differently than expected. We will still be talking about Ash Wednesday & Valentine’s Day, which seem like opposite things. On Valentine’s Day we celebrate our sweetheart, the love in our life. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter (but those forty days don’t include the Sundays). During Lent, we fast, we repent. It seems like the opposite of Valentine’s Day. But, just like on Valentine’s Day we are celebrating the love in our life, when we fast during Lent it is so that our love for God will grow. The purpose of a Lenten fast is to help us grow deeper in our relationship with God and to become more like Jesus.
I recently read an article in the news about becoming one flesh in marriage. We normally only think about that in terms of physical love, BUT, becoming one flesh in marriage is much more complicated and deep than just physical love. Spouses come to rely on each other. Psychology has shed some light on this. The article that I read said that spouses store things in each other’s brains. When two people get married they both bring different skills and gifts to the relationship. Different tasks are delegated to each spouse based on what they are good at. Over time, without realizing it, we store information in each other’s brains. We both individually know different sets of things, how to do different things, but we live as if we know all the information because we come to rely on our spouse.
This really came to light in my marriage with Brett when I was sick with shingles. I had never valued the things that I did in the family as being significant or important...saying that out loud makes it sound totally ridiculous. I always thought that if I was gone that Brett would just do the things that I did. In our marriage, I do the family managing. I organize the schedules, the logistics. If a change needs to be made, I figure that out and reorganize everything. I make sure that we have what we need, the kids have their snow suits at the beginning of the winter, I plan the meals and buy all the food. I suppose, I provide structure to the family. Brett is really good at the day-to-day. He makes sure the kitchen is clean at the end of the day, he is the driving force behind toy clean-up. He pays the bills, looks after the car, etc. We often cook together, but when in doubt, Brett will spearhead dinner. I suppose Brett fleshes out our lives and makes them work within the structure that I create.
When I got sick, Brett kept going with the same structure that we had before. He’s really good at the day-to-day so he just took over planning the meals and buying the food, but using the old structure that only worked with two functioning adults. He quickly exhausted himself. And when winter was approaching, he couldn’t figure out how to get the snow suits for the kids. But, he’s really good at the day-to-day, so everyday, the kids were up, their lunches were made (he got them to help make their lunches - amazing! - that’s one of the things we’ve kept from the shingles experience), and the kids were ontime to school everyday. One time, he had to travel when I was still in full shingles fatigue, so he made the kids’ lunches in advance for everyday that he would be gone so that all we had to do those mornings was pull them out of the fridge. He was amazing! I don’t know how he did it. But of course, one of the first things I did when I started to get a little better, was restructure our meal planning, and I simplified it completely. That really helped. And I bought the snow suits. What I realized through this is that Brett stores all that structuring-of-the-family information in my brain. It’s part of how we’ve become one flesh. We rely on each other in order to function as a unit, as one flesh. When I was sick, Brett struggled and couldn’t function properly. Many people offered to help, but in many cases I could not be replaced by someone else.
How does this relate to our relationship with God? There is an analogy in the Bible of God marrying “the people.” We read that in Isaiah 62 tonight and we know that the church is called “the bride of Christ” in the New Testament. If we think of our own relationship with Jesus and this idea of becoming one flesh with him: just as two people can grow to rely on each other, so too we can grow to rely on Jesus. Just as Brett had trouble functioning without me, we don’t function properly without Jesus. Just as the things I did could not be done by someone else, we cannot replace Christ in our life, although we do try. Lent is the season of the church year that helps us to grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus, to continue to work on becoming one with Him.
Lent is like the spring cleaning of the soul. It’s an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and get rid of things that are preventing us from following God, from relying on God. We do this at this time in the church calendar because of love. Lent is 40 days of preparing to go to the cross on Good Friday and to celebrate the resurrection on Easter. We know that Jesus went to the cross out of great love for us. When we enter Lent, whatever we decide to do or not to do should be motivated by our own love for God. Every year for Lent God invites us to come: “Come on this Lenten journey with me,” says God. .. We will receive ashes tonight and when we receive those ashes, it is our yes to God’s invitation. “Yes, God, I will go on this Lenten journey with you because I know you love me, and because I love you.”
The ashes are a wonderful symbol for the beginning of the Lenten journey because we often are not aware of what is getting in the way of our relationship with God. The ashes put us in a good starting place because they help us remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Jesus said in Matthew 16:25, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That’s what Lent is all about. We are supposed to come with nothing and offer ourselves to God and God fills us. In Psalm 51, which we will read tonight after the sermon as part of our prayer of confession, it says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” God can’t create a new thing in us if we come full. God can’t renew any part of us if we hold on very tightly to who we already are. There is an aspect of Lent that requires us to empty ourselves and let go. To let go of the things we are relying on, so that we can learn to rely on God. That’s why we repent during Lent, we slow down during Lent. We are taking the time to empty ourselves and let go so that we can deepen our relationship with God. If we don’t empty ourselves and let go, slow down and repent, we won’t hear God. We won’t learn to rely on God, we won’t become one with the God who loves us. We will just keep living the way we already are.
If we look at our Scriptures this evening, we see in Isaiah 58 God’s reaction to meaningless fasting. In Isaiah 58, the people of God think they are being good and righteous. They fast regularly, but they are not actually following God. At the end of verse 3, God says to them, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day.” And then God lists all the things that they keep doing that demonstrate that they are not following God: they oppress their workers, they quarrel and fight, etc. The core problem that God identifies with they way they practice their faith is that they serve their own interests on their fast days. This is exactly the opposite of what I’ve been saying Lent is about. When we serve our own interests, we are not emptying ourselves, we are not repenting, we are not letting go. When we serve our own interests during a fast, we don’t change. Or if we do change, it is in a way that drives us deeper into our own sin. A fast is supposed to drive us away from our sins and deeper into our relationship with God. We should be renewed and more like Jesus after a fast. We should grow deeper in our relationship with God and become more dependent on God through a fast. The only way we can do that is if we empty ourselves and let go so that we serve God’s interests during our fast.
What kind of fast are we talking about? It could be anything. Last year I said that fasting is sacrifice and blessing. The idea behind a fast is that we sacrifice one thing and replace it with something else. If we fast from food, we replace preparing and eating and cleaning up food with prayer. If we sacrifice social media, we could replace it with prayer or fellowship with people in person. If we fast from shopping, we could replace that spending with giving. There is not a right thing to fast from. The point is to remove something from our lives in order to make space for God. The fast should be chosen in order to help us serve, not our own interests, but God’s interests during Lent. There is a section from my prayer book that expresses this very well. It says, “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you.” How can we do something God tells us to if we do not have space in our lives to listen for God? We need God, but we often replace listening to God with many, many, many other things. When we approach our Lenten fast by emptying ourselves and letting go, it opens us up to hear God. It allows us to receive a clean heart and a renewed spirit. We come to rely on God in our lives to the point that we can’t live without Him.
What is the fruit of the Lenten fast? When we approach Lent with the intention to empty ourselves, let go, and grow deeper in our relationship with God, we will see the fruit that we read in our Scripture today. We will participate in justice in the world. We will treat each other more kindly. We will deepen our relationship with God. I’d like to read to you from the Scripture passages this evening so that you can hear the fruit of this type of fast.
In Isaiah 58 we see the fruits of justice, starting in verse 6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naken to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” And skipping down to verse 9b, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness.” These are some of the fruits of justice that come from a Lenten fast that serves God’s interests.
In Ephesians, we see the fruits among each other, starting in chapter 4 vs. 1: “I therefore...beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” These are the fruits among each other that grow during a Lenten fast that serves God’s interests.
And when we combine part of Isaiah 62 and Ephesians 5, we see the reciprocal love that develops between us and God. Starting in Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” And while we strive to do this, in our imperfection, with our mistakes, God rejoices over us, and delights in us. According to Isaiah 62:5, “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” These are the fruits in our relationship with God that grow from a fast that serves God’s interests. ...
The Lenten fast is motivated by love. God first loved us, and gave himself up for us. And so we love God. During Lent, God invites us on a Lenten journey. When we accept God’s invitation, we bring ourselves empty and God fills us. We let go of our lives because when we rely on God, those who lose their life will find it. When we let go, we open ourselves up to go on a Lenten fast that serves God’s interests. So, let us turn our hearts and our minds to beginning this journey, starting with repentance and receiving ashes, orienting ourselves to fully rely on God in all things, and remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall we return.